1 Corinthians 6:12-7:16

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Week 6 – The Gospel, Sex and Relationships

1 Corinthians 6:12 – 7:16

By Rand Nelson


            You may have been told by someone before “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul; you have a body.” Worse still, they may have even attributed such a thought to C.S. Lewis. The problem with this is—first of all that—C.S. Lewis never said that, and—second—it is not a biblical view of the Christian body and soul. Before you file this train of thought into a mental category marked “Theological minutiae that only lonely nerds think about,” bear with me. Whether or not you realize it, there is an ideological assault on the nature of the human body. Everywhere we look in popular culture and politics, this is evident asking questions such as: Can a human being reassign their physical gender identity?, Should an expectant mother have the right to terminate her pregnancy?, What is sex and who (gender, age, number of partners, marital status, etc.) can participate?, and When should a person have the right to end their life on their own terms?”

When these questions are asked from an unbiblical worldview, they carry with them the assumption that the body is of little to no importance in its relationship to the self/person/consciousness. When we think about ourselves in such a way (as having an authentic self that is merely housed in a human shell), it leaves us with a fractured, fragmented view of what human beings really are.[1] In his growing list of clarifications and rebukes, the apostle Paul confronts the idea growing among the Corinthians that their body is an unimportant component of who they are and how—in their context—this idea was causing harm.  

Read 1 Corinthians 6:12 – 7:16 together

Study Questions

  1. What does this passage say about God, who He is, and what He does? (Father, Son, and Spirit)
  2. What does this passage teach me about me?
  3. What comfort/promise/challenge can I take away from this passage?
  4. How will I respond or live differently because of what I’ve read?

Passage Specific Questions

  1. In an age where autonomy is king, what does the Bible teach us about our bodies in terms of who they are for and what their chief purpose is? 
  2. What is God’s view of sex—is it a good or bad thing? What is the purpose of sex in this passage and why is it so vital for married couples?
  3. What should Christians think about divorce when they filter it through the redemptive intentionality of the gospel?


6:12-20 – When we read the words “All things are lawful for me,” we should understand that Paul is likely referencing and confronting prominent ideas of their day. These are probably not creedal statements, but statements that the Corinthians would have adopted as they filtered their theology through the culture in which they lived (always a dangerous practice). These are not dissimilar from statements that we often hear in our own day: “My body, my choice,” or “I was born this way.” Paul confronts these slogans because, while what they were saying was true in a certain sense—God will forgive any sin a believer commits, no matter what—the Corinthians were abusing their freedom. In so doing, they were revealing their bondage as slaves to their sin, rather than operating in the freedom they boasted of. 

            In speaking of food, the slogan’s argument is trying to justify their sinful, physical appetites. It would sound something like this: “Because I have a physical desire for something (sex)—and this physical desire is part of how God made me—why should I deny myself of satiating that desire? How could it be wrong? After all, it’s just my body that’s affected, not my soul.” Paul’s argument against this idea does not confront their premise, but their conclusion. The stomach does not exist for food, and the body does not exist for sex—both exist for the Lord and the Lord for the body. All that God has given us exists to bring him glory. When we pursue sinful things, we are not glorifying or worshipping God; we are serving ourselves. 

            Furthermore, in speaking of the resurrection here (v.14), he reminds the Corinthians of the importance of the body. Christian teaching does not teach a frivolity of the human body, but rather a respect and reverence for it. After all, Christ was raised in a physical body and maintains his physical body, which is a preview and foretaste for the believer of what will be ours when we are resurrected in the last day. Our concept of heaven should not be that we are merely spiritual beings that will float around like ghosts for all of eternity. We will be raised to new and perfect physical bodies that we will be forever joined to in the new heaven. 

Therefore, the body matters, and what we do with our body matters. Because of this, believers should not join their bodies to a prostitute, nor should they engage in any form of sexual immorality. Sexual immorality has a unique ability to harm and damage a human being because it is a sin against their own body. Now, Paul is not saying that our bodies will forever be marred and eternally damaged by the sinful decisions we make in them now (as if God could not redeem us from these things in this life or the next); he’s saying that the foundation for the Corinthians’ sexual libertinism is unfounded because the body is not a detached, temporary shell to house our true self. Rather it is something that is of eternal significance. Lastly, and of primary importance, Paul undergirds his argument in this stated idea: You don’t belong to you. As a Christian, you belong to God. How you use your body should be about bringing God glory, not satisfying your lusts—sexual or otherwise. 

7:1-7 – Chapter 7 begins with Paul referencing a letter he received from the Corinthian church (probably a letter he received from them in response to a letter he sent them, which would make 1 Corinthians at least his second letter to them, though only his first letter to them preserved as Scripture given to the church). It would seem that the best explanation for the sentence, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman,” is that this was a conclusion some of the Corinthians had reached from what Paul had written them. As with many other theological issues, it seems that there are two great errors: legalism and licentiousness. Paul has already addressed one error that a misunderstanding of the human body can lead to by telling the Corinthians to flee sexual immorality. Now, he combats an ascetic view of sex (legalism) where the Corinthians had wrongfully concluded that, if sexual immorality is such a problem and our physical bodies are bad in and of themselves, then maybe we should just avoid sex altogether. 

Considering that the church knew Paul was himself unmarried and preaching against sexual immorality, this view makes sense. They may have thought Paul was calling people to a celibate lifestyle. Paul addresses this in verse 7 (and expands on this topic in the verses that follow), stating that the way that God gifts people is different and unique. He has the gift of celibacy, but not all do. Paul does not see celibacy as a good idea for people who are married, nor do any of his comments hint that to remain celibate apart from having the gift of celibacy to be a pathway toward a higher plane of Christian maturity. 

Verses 1-7 have much to say about sex within Christian marriage. Rather than trying to parse these things out verse by verse, what follows is a list of observations: 

  • There is an affirmation of the male/female breakdown of Christian marriage. Nowhere in the pages of the Bible does God affirm or allow homosexuality as a permissible practice among Christians; it repeatedly condemns it. 
  • The sexual rights each spouse has to their spouses’ body are mutually described. Nowhere is the male or the female favored in what Paul says. Sex is not a masculine desire that women are to put up with, but both are shown as having sexual desires for one another that are good.
  • The sexual rights each spouse has to their spouses’ body does not mean that they are permitted to demand or physically force things of their spouse. 
  • By stating that spouses should not deprive one another of sexual intimacy, Paul indicates that to abstain from sex within marriage is a mutual deprivation of a need your spouse has. 
  •  The sex Paul has in mind deepens the couple’s intimacy and brings God glory. It is not a pressure release to satisfy their individual lusts. The best sex is holy sex.
  • Because sex within marriage helps protect Christians from sexual immorality there may be times when it is wise and good for a wife or husband to answer the sexual ‘call’ of their spouse when they do not particularly feel like it. This does not mean that when a spouse commits sexual immorality it is because of a sexual failure of their wife or husband. No one can blame their spouse for their personal sexual sin.
  • The only concession that Paul makes for abstaining from sex in marriage (v.5-6) is a temporary abstention that is for the purpose of prayer and devotion to Christ. He does not give this as a command to be practiced, but as the single reason why he thinks regular sexual intimacy could be halted as a Christian marital practice. Regular sex is not to be withheld for reasons such as manipulation or retaliation. Rather, as an expression of intimacy between a husband and a wife, sex should be regularly celebrated. 
  • Paul nowhere here mentions procreation as he discusses sex. The purpose for sex that he here describes has to do with the spouses’ desire for one another.

It’s important to remember that Paul is trying to teach the Corinthians that abstaining from sex is not an act of Christian maturity. He is encouraging them to enjoy what God has created for its intended purpose. These verses should be encouraging married believers, they’re not to be forcefully wielded as a tool to demand anything from your spouse.

Taking all of these things together in Paul’s discussion of sex within marriage, we should see the picture that the Bible consistently paints of sex. In the right context (a man and wife joined in marriage), sex is a beautiful, powerful gift from God with a good and holy purpose. Sex is not a result of the fall. It is not something that Christians should abstain from to gain maturity in Christ. It is a gift from God, meant to be enjoyed frequently within the right and proper context both to combat the temptation for sexual immorality, and to join and unite a man and woman together, deepening their relationship. 

7:8-16 – Paul now speaks directly to people in his situation—the ESV translates this as “unmarried and widows,” though there is good reason to understand this as “widowers and widows.” Paul himself may have been a widower, though the Scriptures do not indicate anything for certain. In saying it is better to marry than to burn with passion, Paul is not saying that marriage is for people who can’t keep their hands to themselves. He’s instructing Christians that, while celibacy is a good gift given to some by God, marriage is a good and holy alternative for people who are currently consumed by sexual desires and are sinning. If your spouse has died, this is not an excuse to pursue sexual lusts. Instead, you may remarry.

Verses 10-16 are hard for many to read. Divorce and separation are difficult topics for the church to address because of how prevalent the issue exists in our culture. When reading texts that speak to divorce (or any text in Scripture), it’s helpful to ask questions that provide context to the purpose of the teaching. For these verses, we should ask, “Why is Paul addressing divorce here with the Corinthians?” It would appear the answer is specifically whether or not “mixed” marriages of believer and unbeliever should be maintained or dissolved. 

Paul next speaks to marriages that are made up of two believers. Consistent with the whole of Biblical teaching on marriage, Paul upholds that it is never God’s design or ideal for marriages to end in divorce. Because the heart of the Christian gospel is reconciliation, reconciliation is always the ideal situation where spouses have separated. This is why he does not permit remarriage for believers who have separated. “If the Christian husband and wife cannot be reconciled to one another, then how can they expect to become models of reconciliation before a fractured and broken world?”[2]

But what if one spouse in a marriage has heard and believed the gospel and the other remains unsaved? In verses 12-16, Paul addresses this issue. If the unbelieving spouse consents to live with the believing spouse, there is no reason why they should seek to separate from them. Based on the passage in its whole, there is also no reason to abstain from a continued sexual relationship with them. There is nothing about the unbelieving spouse that will make the believing spouse unholy or defiled. Much to the contrary, by the continued witness of the believing spouse to the unbelieving spouse, it is very possible that, in time, they may also come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ (or as the passage puts it be “made holy”). Likewise, their children are not defiled by being the fruit of an unbelieving parent; they are being raised in a household where they are under continued influence of someone who walks daily in the grace of the Lord Jesus. 

As a final point, Paul notes that—should the opposite occur, and the unbelieving spouse decide that they no longer wish to remain married—the believer is not enslaved and bound to the marriage. They are free to allow the divorce to move forward. Paul does not comment on whether or not they are free to remarry, because that is not the issue he is addressing. Gordon Fee is helpful in his summary of this passage: 

This passage has regularly been consulted in the church for an ongoing concern—divorce and remarriage. But this contemporary issue is so complex, and the individual cases so diverse, that this text with its singular focus on maintaining mixed marriages (but allowing them to dissolve if the nonbeliever initiates the action) does not offer much help. It certainly would be an injustice to make it apodictic law (“Thou shalt or shalt not”); on the other hand, one should exercise due caution in using it casuistically (case by case). Our situation is usually made more complex because our concerns are often the precise opposite of some of the believers in Corinth, which caused this to be written in the first place. They wanted to dissolve marriages; we want to know whether remarriage is permitted… The real point of the passage needs to be given a fair hearing. When a married man or woman hears and responds to the call of the gospel, but the wife or husband does not—at least at the same time—let the new believer consider the spouse sanctified, that is, also set apart for the gospel. And then let the believer so live that in due time they might “save” their wife or husband. That at least is the Good News this passage sets before the world.

The Main Point

Our bodies are not unimportant components of our “self,” and therefore how we use our bodies matters. Believers should flee sexual immorality of any kind and utilize the good and holy gift of Christian marriage as a means both to safeguard against sexual immorality and to bear witness to one another and the world. 

A Few Relevant Scriptures

  • Genesis 2:18-25 – How God’s people are meant to think about marriage.
  • Deuteronomy 24:1-4 – Divorce laws God gave to govern his people in the Old Testament.
  • Matthew 19:1-12 – Jesus’ commentary on marriage/divorce, includes references to two passages above.
  • 1 Corinthians 15:1-49 – Paul’s teaching on the resurrection and the resurrection body, which shows the continued meaningfulness of the physical body.

[1] Pearcey, Nancy. 2019. Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[2] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 328. 

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